Historian Amanda Foreman

Historian and best-selling author discusses her latest text, A World on Fire, and explains what she feels is one of the greatest tragedies of the Civil War.

Amanda Foreman is an acclaimed historian whose books have enjoyed phenomenal success. Her best-selling and award-winning Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire has been translated into numerous languages and inspired a TV documentary, a radio play and a feature film. Born in London, the daughter of an Oscar-winning screenwriter, she was raised in Los Angeles and educated in England, earning her doctorate from Oxford. Her long-awaited second work of nonfiction is A World on Fire, the story of the major role Britain and its citizens played in the American Civil War.


Tavis: Amanda Foreman is a noted historian and best-selling author whose previous book was the international best seller, “Georgiana.” Her latest is called “A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War,” a project that will, in fact, serve as the basis for a six-part series for the BBC and HBO. Amanda, good to have you on this program.

Amanda Foreman: Hi.

Tavis: Let me start by asking what there is to value or appreciate, put another way, about the British role. Why should we care about the British role, what they thought about the Civil War?

Foreman: I know. It’s very hard to really even believe that once upon a time British was the most powerful country on the planet, and in the 1860s it mattered, because which side British chose would determine the course of the war.

At the very beginning, British went neutral, and that really allowed the North and the South to duke it out. Then both the North and the South spent the rest of the war trying to get British to change its mind and come on side. So just for that alone, British’s role was crucial.

But more than that, the southern coast was blockaded by federal ships, and the only way it was going to get its arms, its bullets, its medicines, even get volunteers from abroad, was if somebody brought it over. Literally thousands of blockade runners left the British coast from places like Liverpool and evaded those blockaders and gave the South a lifeline for almost two years, the last two years of the war.

Then finally Britain sent over, mm, I don’t know, 50,000 Britons, over 100,000 Irish, and they joined the ranks of the North, and that really made a huge difference.

Tavis: As an African American, how do I take your point that the most powerful nation in the world at that time originally was neutral on a war being fought over the enslavement of Black people, that they were neutral initially, and then when they did get involved they took the side of the South? How am I supposed to read that about British?

Foreman: I think that one of the great tragedies of the Civil War, at least from a historian’s perspective, is the failure of American foreign policy at the beginning of the war. At the very beginning the North was knocking at an open door and Britain was ready to ally itself with the North, and we have letters from the British ambassador that show that.

But the secretary of State, William Henry Seward, had a different plan. He believed that if he could provoke a foreign war, that would reunite the North and the South because then they would have a common enemy, and there was no greater common enemy at that time than Britain.

Of course, that plan failed and by the time Seward realized that, it was too late. So that’s the first tragedy. The second tragedy is that Southern propagandists were just much better than Northern propagandists, and when they went to England the line that they gave was this: The North is fighting for empire or territory; the South is fighting for freedom.

The horrible, horrible tragedy is that Britain took that line and believed it, and the North didn’t help its cause, particularly with things like the draft riots in 1863 in New York City, where hundreds, as you know, hundreds of African Americans were hunted down and murdered by an Irish-led mob.

That played very badly in Europe. In England, people said, well, look, the North are hypocrites. The South has a problem with slavery, but the North also has a problem and it treats its free Black citizens disgustingly. So why should we support the North over the South?

Southern propagandists took that and said look, not only are the North hypocrites, but we in the South, with our “paternal slavery,” will deal with slavery at the end of the war in our own time. Support us now in our bid for freedom and independence and then we will deal with slavery later.

Tavis: Yeah. An argument of freedom, freedom from what? When the South is arguing to Britain this is about freedom, unpack that for me. What kind of freedom?

Foreman: The Southern line is that they were fighting for the right to self-determination, and in those days that was a very catchy phrase. The 1860s was a time of upheaval and it followed on several revolutions in Europe – the Germans in 1848, Garibaldi leading the independence of the Italians from European influence in 1860, the Poles had a revolution to get away from the Russians in ’63.

So when the South said we want to be free of Northern control, that had a kind of catchy ring to it. But as the great philosopher John Stewart Mill said, hang on a second – the South is fighting for the right to have the freedom to take away the freedom of others, and yet you know what happens when people become morally fashionable, it is almost impossible for other people to break that line.

It’s the emperor has no clothes syndrome. But once everyone thinks the emperor has those clothes, you can’t break it.

Tavis: To your earlier point, Amanda, so the queen at the time issues a proclamation of neutrality, but tell me more about what the people were saying. We understand then and even now that just because the queen said something doesn’t mean that all the subjects agree with the queen. So what were the people saying?

Foreman: Okay, well, the queen, when she declared neutrality she’s just giving the government line.

Tavis: Exactly.

Foreman: But actually, she was pro-Northern. She was not pro-Southern. She understood more than most people, as did her husband, Prince Albert, that essentially the war was about slavery.

But in Britain in general it was very ambiguous and very mixed. “The people” – what does that mean? Well, for example, anyone who was fashionable, so people in the theater, in the entertainment industry, undergraduates, a lot of people in the church, some aristocracy but not all and anyone who nowadays we would call “right on,” they supported the South.

Then old-fashioned types, deep-thinking philosophers and some of the older figures in both parties, they supported the North. Henry Adams, the son of Charles Francis Adams, who was the American ambassador, he wrote in his autobiography, “The Education of Henry Adams,” that the British, they love eccentrics, they like to think of themselves as eccentric and the South fitted the criteria of being eccentric.

The one great issue which cuts against the grain is the fact that the cotton workers in Lancashire who were the worst affected by the war, they remained resolutely pro-Northern. They understood about owning the fruit of your labor, and they understood what it meant for slavery to not own the fruit of your labor.

So they were instinctively anti-slavery, and nothing was going to convince them otherwise of that. They understood the fundamental truth of things, the way people maybe in their ivory towers don’t.

The second reason is that when they might have been pushed towards the South because of the economic suffering that they endured through having no cotton for most of the war from the South, there was the largest charitable campaign in British history to keep them going, body and soul, through charitable donations and works projects.

So that although there was suffering, it wasn’t as bad as if, for example, someone had just turned off all the oil in the world and there was a massive oil crisis. It wasn’t ever as bad as that.

Tavis: So these cotton workers in England, were they empathizing with the North for economic reasons or because they understood and were reveling in the humanity of those Negroes, those colored folks, those slaves in the field who were being subjected to picking this cotton? So was it an economic argument or a humanitarian argument?

Foreman: Oh, no, it was a humanitarian argument.

Tavis: Okay.

Foreman: One of the most moving stories of the war is the letter that President Abraham Lincoln wrote to the cotton workers of Manchester, in which he thanked them for enduring this great suffering for the cause of the war. So it wasn’t that everybody in England was pro-South, and certainly many of the great anti-slavery campaigners, including many of the great aristocratic families, understood that and were always pro-Northern.

Tavis: What was the view of President Lincoln at the time in England?

Foreman: It’s really terrible, actually, and interestingly, about four months ago one of the main editors of the “Guardian” newspaper, which is a left-wing English newspaper, wrote a kind of apology, because he went back into the “Guardian” archives and realized that throughout the war the “Guardian” newspaper was anti-Lincoln.

A lot of people were, including, actually, Charles Francis Adams, the American ambassador. It wasn’t that he was so much anti-Lincoln as that he didn’t believe the president was up to the job, and this was the prevailing view of most Britons.

Don’t forget that in Europe it seemed incredible that a man from a lowly background, who was self-taught, who had never been abroad, could have the top political job of a country. It was alien. It was like coming from another universe. They didn’t think that he was handling the war well.

Of course, many of the great attributes that we assign to Lincoln now are things that we only understand afterwards, not that people understood at the time.

Tavis: So as the war went on, did the view of Lincoln ever shift or change inside England?

Foreman: There was what we call in England a Damascene conversion at the last second (laughter) when he was assassinated. But until then people really didn’t think that he’d handled the war well.

Why, for example, was the North taking so long to defeat the South when it had 98 percent of the industrial base of the country? Why did Lincoln handle foreign affairs so badly – not realizing that he’d left it in the hands of the secretary of state?

So they had all these questions, and then on top of that, even in those days, it helped to be good-looking, and Lincoln was famously ugly. (Laughter) People compared him to a kind of enormous gorilla and it’s well-known that he walked with his hands like this as opposed to like that. People made fun of him.

Even journalists who liked him personally were just shocked at the way he looked, so there was a kind of looksism that went with it. But famously, after he died, two newspapers, “The Times of London” and “Punch” magazine, both issued apologies.

Tavis: What has been the response to this – obviously it’s a best-selling book around the world now – what’s been the response intellectually inside England as you have caused your fellow citizens to confront where they were, where they stood, where they did not stand, what they did, what they didn’t do, during this crucial period in world history, in fact?

Foreman: Well, there’s the historical reaction and then there’s the present reaction. I think what I find most interesting is the present reaction. It’s that this is a fable; this is a modern fable about the dangers of being morally fashionable.

I think that’s produced a certain amount of shame and some kind of self-questioning, because if people then – undergraduates, academics, dons, people in the church – could be so easily misled and think that they were fighting the good fight and claim that they had the moral high ground when they didn’t and were so completely fooling themselves about what was right and what was wrong, what does that say about today?

When you jump on that bandwagon, is it the right bandwagon to be jumping on? So that’s been very satisfying to see, I have to tell you. Then the second issue about the historical reaction is that no one’s ever written about this before. Occasionally people have looked at various aspects, like for example the fact that the Confederates build their navy in British dockyards because they took advantage of legal loopholes.

So it’s not that no one’s ever written about bits of British involvement, but no one ever attempted to write one enormous epic history of all of that together and tied it into the whole war to show where it all fitted in.

Tavis: Well, you’ve done it, and you’ve done it well.

Foreman: Thank you.

Tavis: A forthcoming BBC series and a forthcoming HBO series underscores the fact that she’s done it remarkably well. Her name is Amanda Foreman, great historian. The book is called “A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War.” Amanda, good to have you on. Thanks for your work.

Foreman: Thank you very much.

Tavis: It’s my pleasure. Good to see you.

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Last modified: July 7, 2011 at 1:22 pm